Women Talking:  An Anabaptist Fable for our Times?

This week Anabaptist Historians welcomes Dr. Kimberly D. Schmidt. She divides her research interests between Amish and Mennonite women’s social history and women’s histories of the Southern Cheyenne. For over twenty years, Dr. Schmidt worked as a history professor and Director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Washington Community Scholars’ Center.

Women Talking:  An Anabaptist Fable for our Times?

Kimberly D. Schmidt

Miriam Toews’s novel that became an academy-award winning movie (Best Adapted Screenplay) has generated much debate among the Mennorati on websites and in social media. Toews presents a story drawn from real-life events that transpired between 2005-2009. In a remote Bolivian Old Colony Mennonite community women were drugged and violently raped. For years they woke in semi-stupor to injury and pain. Some women were impregnated. After a perpetrator was caught, he confessed and identified seven more perpetrators. A number of women came forward, eight men were convicted and are serving twenty-five year prison sentences–the longest sentence allowed under Bolivian law. These real-life events form the backdrop for Toews’ story. The “Ghost Rapes,” as they came to be called, have justifiably horrified the world and Toews’ novel struck a powerful chord. On Facebook and other social media sites some have argued that the book and movie are, as the novelist claims in an introductory note, “an act of female imagination.” While based on recent, real events, proponents argue that Women Talking is not a documentary but a fable for our times. Is Women Talking a powerful fable? If it can be argued that it is a fable, perhaps it is an Anabaptist fable. Could Women Talking have been written by someone unfamiliar with Mennonite culture and history? There are several aspects of Women Talking that seem to be taken straight out of Anabaptist theology and history.  

The Mennonite emphasis on the congregation as the discerning body provided the narrative arch. The women worked through their choices and differences in a group setting. Women confronting violent abuse addressed their anger, confusion, and heartbreak not from positions of weakness but from the strength that comes from collective discernment. It was a priesthood of believers that met, in this case a group of women, who talked, listened, reflected, argued, comforted, guided, prayed and sang together. No one woman had the leading voice. There was no one leader (priest?). There was no one protagonist or heroine and no one villain. It was a community where all were heard and no one’s voice was dismissed.

The women met in a hayloft. That’s not the first time women of Anabaptist traditions have met in secret. In early Anabaptist history, Mennoists and other early Anabaptists met in haylofts, caves, boats, and “around the distaff,” that is, craft production or what might be considered sixteenth-century corollaries to modern-day sewing or quilting circles.1 The women in Women Talking, like sixteenth-century Anabaptist women, used a women’s craft meeting to disguise their secret meetings. However, Elisabeth Harder Schrock, who worked extensively with women in the Bolivian colonies during the time of the Ghost Rapes noted that women’s gatherings and craft circles in Bolivia are not regulated by men. It’s not unusual for Old Colony women to visit and share work and meals with no males present. There is not necessarily a need for secrecy when women meet together in contemporary Old Colony society.”2 Meeting in secret seems particularly drawn from Anabaptist history and not contemporary practice.   

The women were closely related by kinship networks and relationships interwoven by years of living in close community with one another and through the generations. These identities are still often used to place Mennonite individuals within a matrix of family, extended family, church, and community, even by those who live on the margins or who have rejected much of Mennonite belief. These closely woven connections informed the women’s actions. When the women in Women Talking fled they left not as individuals or small family units but as a large collective–reminiscent of the numbers of extended Russian Mennonite families that came to the United States and Canada during the 1870s. Entire churches packed up and left southern Russia for the Great Plains of North America. The last, powerfully visual scene in the movie is of women leaving together in a long line of horses and buggies. They packed up their bundles of clothing, blankets, cookware, bibles, and canned goods (zwieback?), hitched their horses to buggies and one following the next left in a long solemn line. Flight or immigration in large family groups is a time-honored Anabaptist tradition and the end of Women Talking should not come as a surprise to those familiar with Anabaptist and Mennonite history. 

The women’s final decision, to leave the colony, was informed by their deeply felt religious beliefs in forgiveness and healing. They had to leave so that they could heal and learn to forgive. The choice to flee is particularly emblematic of Anabaptist and Mennonite decisions. As I’ve written elsewhere, Helena von Freyberg, a woman who chose flight, should be as celebrated as the martyr Dirk Willems.3  Willems turned back over a frozen pond to save his jailer who had fallen through the ice. He was recaptured and burned at the stake. In contrast, von Freyberg kept running. She was a prominent noblewomen from Kitzbühel, a town in Tirol, Austria. Her family castle is still extant and Mennonite heritage tourists can visit the homeplace of a woman who not once but three times outwitted local Catholic authorities and fled to Augsburg via Constance. She escaped from certain persecution to relative safety and died peacefully in Augsburg in 1545. In all three locations: Kitzbühel, Constance, and Augsburg, von Freyberg harbored Anabaptist refugees, hosted meetings in her home, and strengthened her community.

The book and movie were in many ways authentic to an Anabaptist ethos of community discernment and community action and both media (book and movie) portrayed the confusion, heartbreak and anger of forging a healing path away from abuse. There were several moments in the movie so authentic, so real, that I broke down. For example, the conversation between Mariche and her frail, elderly mother who offered to accompany her home to protect her from a violent husband could have been a word-by-word rendition of several conversations between my own elderly, frail mother and myself. Several scenes in the movie were closely and powerfully felt. 

In spite of heart-rending identification, there are areas in which Toews’ narrative and public pronouncements so blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction that I have started to question her intentions and ethics. And here is where the argument as a Anabaptist fable for our times breaks down.

The novel’s setting is very specific to time, place, and recent memory. Places are named. There were news reports. Toews presents not a fable but a dystopian novel based on real-life, not that long ago, violence against women. This is no Margaret Atwood tale set in some distant future with characters we don’t know. There are a few places where Toews’ blurs her novel’s telling with the truth. She gave a 2018 interview with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation in which she made several claims, as if they were true, as if they were facts. 

For example, Toews asserted in her novel that Mennonite women in the Bolivian colonies are illiterate. Toews repeated this claim as if it’s fact during the CBC interview. Actually, many Bolivian Mennonite women are avid readers. Their favorite books are about the Titanic and Ben Hur.5 Harder Schrock noted to this author that many women are their community’s scribes, recording weddings, births, funerals and keeping their families in touch through lengthy letters.6

In Women Talking, women can’t travel; they are forced to stay on their farms. Toews claimed in the interview that women were “prisoners in their colonies.” Actually, Mennonite women in the Bolivian colonies love to travel. Harder Schrock noted how she often passed buggies filled with women and children traveling without men.7 In the book and movie they are so isolated that they don’t know how to read a map. In fact, globes were provided to most Bolivian schoolrooms by Mennonite Central Committee.8 Travel is a central aspect of life and it’s not unusual for families to carry passports from two-three different nations. The repeated references both in the book and movie and in Toews’ CBC interview to how Mennonite women don’t know anything about history and cultures other than their own are, quite simply, completely false.

If this is a fable what do we learn from it? That all men almost without exception are evil? The book/movie paints all men in the colony as evil, except for August, who is demasculinized both in the book and in the movie. As a teacher he occupies the lowest rung in Old Colony society. He can’t farm, so he must teach.9 In Toews’ interviews and in the book, all the other men were monsters who ignored and downplayed women’s pleas for help and discounted women’s experiences. In fact, the chemical concoction used on the women was also used on the men. Entire families were drugged so that the women could be raped. The rapes resulted in widespread fear. Men put up bars on windows, razor wire around homes, locks on doors, and installed alarm systems. They did their best to protect women in the colonies. The colonies raised $400,000 to keep the perpetrators in jail–not to bail them out, as read and seen in Women Talking.10 However, during the CBC interview Toews asserts that males completely dismissed the women as making things up. 

This kind of narrative is not only too easy–women good, men bad–but it fails to truly help women who are being victimized. Only rarely are abusers simply and purely evil. Many abusers have some redeeming qualities. This is what makes it so hard for some women to leave (I speak from experience). Empowering to me, and I’m sure to other women, would be narratives that delve into complex, nuanced characters for not just the women, but also the men.

In interviews and in the book, Toews hid behind fiction, behind “an act of female imagination” to vilify an entire group of people. She simplified, as she amplified, the very real events. What is the human cost to this kind of writing? What are the ethics of writing a supposed fiction about recent non-fiction trauma? I am concerned that her telling, as provocative as it is, could actually harm the women involved and result in even more trauma. The women involved will likely never see the movie though they might read the book. We will likely never hear their voices nor their responses to the book and the movie.

If Toews had refrained from making erroneous claims in her interview, it would be easier for me to accept the book as an act of female imagination, of female empowerment, and as a fable about surviving abuse. However, she crossed the line when she misrepresented colony women and men in these key ways during the interview. As an abuse survivor I look for the day when our stories embrace the complexity and subtlety of abuse dynamics.

In the end and at the end, Toews offers healing to the women in the novel, if not redemption to the community. Through collective action and in a spirit of forgiveness the women chose to protect themselves and their children and in a time-honored Anabaptist tradition, they fled and perhaps that is the moral of the story. Perhaps this is where I can accept the story as a provocative myth, as a powerful Anabaptist fable. 

[1] Jeni Hiett Umble,  “Meeting Around the Distaff: Anabaptist Women in Augsburg” in Schmidt, Umble and Reschly, eds., Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2002),121-135

[2] Email correspondence with Elisabeth Harder Schrock, March 17, 2023.

[3] “Run, Dirk, Run! Wrestling with the Willemas Story,” in Cameron Altaras and Carol Penner, eds. Resistance” Confronting Violence, Power, and Abuse within Peace Churches (Elkhart, IN: Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, 2022), 238-249

[4] “Helena von Fregberg of Münichau,” in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, eds. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers (Kingston, ONT: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), 124-135.

[5] Presentation by Willmar Harder, Dorothy Nikkel Friesen, moderator. Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kansas, (Feb. 24, 2023). Harder is a former Mennonite Central Committee worker who worked and lived in the Bolivian colonies during the time of the Ghost Rapes. He presented material prepared by himself, his wife, Hannah Neufeld, and his sister, Elisabeth Harder Schrock.

[6] Email correspondence with Elisabeth Harder Schrock, March 17, 2023.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willmar Harder presentation.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

Breaking the silence catharsis through art

This week’s post comes from Dr. Patricia Islas Salinas. She is a research professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México. Her books include: Mennonites of Northeastern Chihuahua: History, Education and Health and The Mennonite Colony in Chihuahua: Case Studies for Social Well-Being.

Since the beginning of times, different human groups have developed the patriarchal culture as the basis of interaction between genders, the role of women on different societies has been a reason of for vulnerability and discrimination.

In endogamic communities such as the Mennonites, the worldview is centered on a main axis: The religion. Since its formation, these communities took the Bible as their guide for behavior, beliefs, customs, and gender roles. Due to this, Mennonite women have been the target of gender violence within their own community, however, lately we can see that an interesting phenomenon of sorority and catharsis is occurring due to the amazing art creations in the kitchen between conservative and liberal women.

The Mennonite population in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico are divided in two groups: 80% are traditionalist or conservative and the 20% are liberalist or progressist, both factions share the territory on two main colonies: ‘Manitoba’ and ‘Swift Curret’, the first one is characterized by the fact members that lives there and by the traditional type fields they have, both with different ways and lifestyle very different, while in the second the original houses and lifestyle originally inherited through the different countries are preserved.

The members of the liberal community even when they constitute the lowest percentage, have great economic power. They’re owners of enterprises located all long through Commercial Corridor ‘Alvaro Obregon’ (the biggest of Latin America). Additionallytheir schools are incorporated to the Mexican Educational System. The liberal community share some characteristics with the American System and the lifestyle of the families is similar to the American or Canadian with modern houses, modern cars and avant-grade electronic devices, use of internet and social network.

In the other way, families of the conservative or traditional faction posses austere houses, some work with Mennonite businessmen and another keep doing planting and cultivation work as a main economical activity. They have a country lifestyle even when they had added trucks, new technologies on their labor and they try to not interfere in the daily family life.

Traditional women follow the role imposed and inherited by their ancestors. Raising their offspring, the house, the kitchen, seam, the farm, the care of birds, cows and pigs, in addition to the cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees for family consumption, they conserve the traditional clothing, as well as the customs inherited from grandmothers and mothers.

On the other side, liberal women probably do not spend most of their time on the farm, but they’ll do on taking care of the family, a lot of them still have their vegetables and pretty gardens. Their kitchens are modern and well equipped, their dressing are not traditional, most of them drives a car and buy the products that they used to produce.

Despite this, the gender roles on both factions are very similar. The men can work outside the house, make commercial transactions, travel and speak Spanish, while the gender role of the Mennonite women has reminded static for almost six centuries. The conservative lifestyle and their behavior remains, even when the lifestyle of both liberal and traditional women are different both are deeply attached to the teachings of their mothers and grandmothers that indicate that the women has to be quiet, obedient and resigned.

Many churchmen condition women to believe that their prime duty is motherhood and household care. Headship for a husband, silence for women in the church, and primacy or normativeness of male experience characterize most Mennonite gender role teaching and practice. Based in androcentric (male-centered) interpretation of Scripture.  Nyce, (1989, párr. 6).

This role imposed from its formation as a religious group is patriarchal in nature, and affects them in the most important aspects of their daily life such as health and communication. In this sense, both traditional and liberal are represented by their husbands, fathers or brothers, since most of them cannot go on their own to receive medical care, they must be accompanied by a man from their family so that he can speak to the doctor or nurse on their behalf.

The social vulnerability of the majority of Mexican Mennonites also has its origin in the decision to maintain an endogamous community, they live the most isolated as possible from the mongrel community. Despite that the Mennonite colonies are very close to the urban sprawl and all people can transit through the settlements, there’s a cultural barrier imposed to women, children and seniors since for generations they have been instilled that they should not associate with the “mexas” because they become contaminated.

Implicit gender violence in the social sphere of Mennonite women can be observed when, despite being Mexican by birth, they don’t have the right to learn the Spanish language. Most of the traditional women don’t know how to speak it, while the liberals, even when they understand it, they consider it unnecessary because their relationship with the members of the dominant community is very scarce; in daily life, the traditional ones communicate in Plautdietsch and the liberals in Plautdietsch or English. Their vulnerability is evident in a Mexican context in which they are considered foreigners due to their worldview and imposition.

Gender violence occurs in the community, however, often these acts towards grandmothers, mothers and daughters aren’t considered that way because they have been normalized and there is a state of conformism that has caused mental and emotional disorders to appear among women.

According wit Islas (2016), between the Mennonite community there is a disease known as Narfenkrankheit (word in Plautdietsch that means Nerve Disease), individual phenomenon brought from the social, that is, it has to do with a state of anguish that involves feelings and emotions […] it is also related to a sense of discontent with social relations in situations of inequality of power and gender. (p.94)

It is common to see women go to pharmacies located in the commercial corridor buying anxiolytic and antidepressant drugs without a prescription that are consumed indiscriminately, these actions reflect the silent suffering and perhaps resignation to situations for which they do not fight.

When the problem is too strong, the council of the minister of the church is consulted, who determines if the woman should be admitted to a community rehabilitation center, meanwhile, their children are taking care by the family, neighbors or in a support center. Often this is not enough and the women relapse into their addiction.

The soroary catharsis

In the community of Cuauhtemoc, the members of the Mennonite community are recognized according to the church to which they belong (currently there is a great diversity of them). However, in recent years liberal women have taken up community artistic initiatives that involve “the others” regardless of what church they belong to or their customs and lifestyle.

The vast majority of Mennonite women have learned sewing, cooking, and growing plants, flowers and vegetables by collective inheritance since they were little girls.These capabilities have begun to be used to generate projects for artistic creations and for gastronomy.

Art and creativity are manifested in different ways in the elaboration of homemade articles and art such as soaps, patchwork quilts, dolls, drawing, paintings, bags, kitchen utensils such as tablecloths, thermal gloves, tortilla holders, and have turned the kitchen and the vegetable garden in cathartic spaces. This activity is not frowned upon by the male gender since it has to do with the gender role of women in the family.

Sorority is a concept that is unknown among Mennonite women but that is observed in actions that indicate otherness and solidarity with each other, based on communication and support networks that generate empowerment.

Some liberal women have managed to convince traditional housewives to participate in artistic and gastronomic shows and seasonal markets (Christmas festival, pumpkin festival). Thanks to these initiatives, a resilience process can be perceived when they verify that their items and meals are valued and bought by the Mennonite and mixed-race community, and they also feel useful because they contribute to the family livelihood.

According to the research of Islas and Trevizo (2016) “some women look at art as an opportunity to express […] what is light and what is dark, protest, modern trends, the evolution of thought […]”. (p. 163)

On the other hand, the love of gardening, growing vegetables and harvesting for cooking has been preserver for generations. These spaces in the home are totally significant, it is there where women identify themselves, feel useful and valued, they also practice reflection and self-discovery to reach catharsis. “Cooking gives me an outlet for creative expression that is inspired by God’s creativity. As I move through adulthood, I find freedom in the inspiration I take with my kitchen and garden”. (Thiessen, 2017)

Gender violence is a deeply rooted social phenomenon in different societies with a patriarchal system, among Mennonite women there are still more who are violated and vulnerable, however, society is evolving, traditional women talk to each other and communicate more with liberal ones, they seek to learn their rights from each other and act accordingly.

Liberal artist and cooks say catharsis through art and sorority can lift their community out of the isolation and vulnerability of women without losing a sense of their worldview and cultural identity.


Islas, P. y Trevizo, O. (2016). La salud: una perspectiva desde el rol de la mujer menonita. En Mujeres menonitas, miradas y expresiones. Ed. ICHICULT, ISBN 978-607-8321-53-7

Nyce, Dorothy Yoder. (1989). Gender RolesGlobal Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 March 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Gender_Roles&oldid=143578

Thiessen, D. (2017). Food and Spirituality. Preservings N° 37. P.30-32. Plett Historical Research Foundation Inc.

Women Talking: A Displaced Act of Female Imagination

This week’s post comes from Anabaptist Historians’ contributor Rebecca Janzen. She is Associate Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Dr. Janzen is a scholar of gender, disability and religious studies in Mexican literature and culture whose research focuses on excluded populations in Mexico.


This blog post will contextualize Women Talking by examining the events on which it is based and alluding to the history of the portrayals of Old Colony Mennonites across the Americas. Women Talking (dir. Sarah Polley, 2022) is based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name.

Both the film and the book bring events from 2005 to 2011 to life. Between 2005 and 2009, women in the Manitoba Colony of Old Colony Mennonites in Bolivia reported waking up after experiencing various forms of sexualized violence, including rape, and not having any memory of what had happened. Others in their community accused them of fabricating the events from what was called a “wild female imagination.”

This is a common accusation levied against victims of sexualized violence and rape, and, as experts in trauma have demonstrated, survivors typically do not have memories of the events that can be shared in a logical, narrative order, that would satisfy the demands of any legal system. In 2009, the Bolivian authorities arrested nine men, and in 2011, it convicted seven of them for the crimes of rendering women unconscious via horse tranquilizer and raping them. These events reached international attention.

The events were covered by international news media in English, as well as national and international news in Spanish, and I believe it was so well reported because Mennonites (like Amish people) often attract attention when the community deviates from the idealized portrayals that I believe are rooted in problematic white supremacist ideas. Films like Silent Light have reached international acclaim for similar reasons (see my discussion of this on the Just Plain Wrong podcast). As I have shown in my previous academic work, when Old Colony Mennonites (and related groups) in Mexico and in Bolivia, are portrayed either as too perfect, or prone to crime or other questionable behavior, this says more about the surrounding culture and how it conceives of nationhood than of the particular group in question (listen to a brief summary of the book here).

The film, I think, tries to use these events to comment on the universal experience of sexualized violence and rape – the many positive reviews of the film focus on how this rings true, and I would emphasize that the film’s comments on the criminal legal system are true in Bolivia and  anywhere else. Unfortunately, much like the novel, and most reporting, it is not based on women’s versions of events. Indeed, as I noted in a 2016 article that I wrote about Bolivian reporting on the events, I could not find recordings or statements of or by women affected by the events. I hope that Kerry Fast’s post in this series will give us more of that perspective.

The problem with this is that it has stopped being a story about these Old Colony Women. The maps in the film were based either on allusions to place in the book (rather than the well-known street village pattern of settlement) or to an otherworldly place that is no place, a Foucauldian heterotopia of horrors. And yet there are some very Bolivia elements to the story. First of all, the community was isolated on purpose. Mennonites migrated from Mexico to Bolivia between 1967 and 1969 in order to preserve the most traditional elements of their way of life, away from encroaching ideas of progress and larger urban centers. They joined a smaller group of Paraguayan Mennonites who had already established themselves there. The Bolivian government wanted to populate a strategically important region of the country with people who would be loyal to them, and who would, in their estimation, improve its economy. As Ben Nobbs-Thiessen’s analysis of the press from that time shows, the group was welcomed because of their perceived expertise in farming, although there were some concerns regarding language, dress, and religious beliefs.

The film removes this group of people from this place and this makes its discussion of the issues that face women who would like to leave a high demand religious community after experiences of violence general, rather than specifically focusing on issues that Old Colony Mennonite women in Bolivia would face, and extrapolating from there. The discussion of the issue of forgiveness, for instance, relies more on prevailing evangelical ideas of forgiveness and of the Kingdom of God than on the Old Colony Mennonite understanding of salvation as a communal enterprise that is never assured. This would undoubtedly make anyone’s decision to leave the community more difficult. The film also focuses on the colony’s purported pacifism. In my opinion it is extremely unlikely that an Old Colony Mennonite would use that word – while Mennonites in Bolivia have continually negotiated with the Bolivian government to ensure that men are exempted from military service (see Nobbs Thiessen), it is in order to preserve a separation from the broader world rather than articulated  pacifism – the way Mennonites in my own background would discuss our aversion or resistance to military service.

I would add that the issues of education and language are also not addressed in the film. The film portrays what appears to be much like the inside of Old Colony Mennonite schools that I visited during my research in Mexico, it fails to mention that girls are educated. While they may receive fewer years of schooling than boys, in both cases, this is an education designed to prepare people to participate in the religious life of the community. Moreover, there are efforts in several Old Colony Mennonite communities to improve education while allowing people to stay in their own communities (see for example Abe Wall’s work in the Thames Valley District School Board in Ontario in Low German, summary of project here, or Amish teachers in Mexico, which I wrote about in the Journal of Mennonite Studies).

This education, moreover, is in German, and the community’s language is Low German. I suspect that the women I spoke with during my research knew more Spanish or English than they claimed, but they thought that because my father is fluent in Low German I should be able to speak it as well, and, according to my casual observations, they seemed to be able to conduct business with non-Mennonite people. I would emphasize that it is different to be able to conduct business than to establish oneself in a new community in a new culture and a new language. The line of buggies leaving the community at the end is a beautiful act of sorority, but, when we think about the women in Bolivia, and people everywhere who have survived sexualized violence, how can you leave when you have no education, no language to speak to anyone outside of your community? How could you leave everything behind?

“Women Talking: The Dilemma of Fight or Flight for Historic Female Anabaptists”: An Introduction

Starting tomorrow, March 9, and running weekly through April 13, Anabaptist Historians will feature a series of posts around the theme of “Women Talking: The Dilemma of Fight or Flight for Historic Female Anabaptists.” Using as its starting point the critically acclaimed film, Women Talking, this series features the work of female contributors as they explore the stories of women throughout Anabaptist history who faced the decision—to varying degrees—of challenging or leaving the religious communities of which they were a part. Its intent is to highlight the work of female scholars and the historic individuals, moments, or sources where Anabaptist women made their voices heard.

Image: Internet Movie Database (Fair Use)

What medieval historian Katherine French observes about her subjects in The Good Women of the Parish also holds true for the historic Anabaptist women covered in this series:

Religious practice was an important source of self-expression, creativity, and agency for women of every social status. The Church promoted submission, modesty, and motherhood as traditional Christian values for women. . . . Yet the Church also provided religious significance to women’s everyday lives and tasks . . . the universal Church, offered women opportunities for leadership, visibility, and even occasional authority, all in the name of religious devotion and in seeming contradiction to the goals of submission and silence.[1]

Growing up in the Mennonite tradition, my own study of female Anabaptists didn’t occur until graduate school, and in the same course where I first read French’s book. Beth Allison Barr’s class “Medieval Sermons” provided me an opportunity to examine the intersection of agency and religion in the life and ministry of Mennonite preacher Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus.[2] The questions engendered by this class alongside misperceptions about religion in Women Talking prompted the creation of this series.

The contributors, several of whom study Latin America, come from various disciplines. Some stories contain dramatic resistance, others much more ordinary. The series opens with Rebecca Janzen’s contextualization of the film. She notes how the particularity and voice of the women in the Bolivian Old Mennonite Colony gets lost in telling a broader story about sexualized violence. Patricia Islas follows by sharing how Mexican Mennonite victims of gender violence experience healing and hope by the kitchen art they create. Other scholars will narrate the stories of Mennonite women from various times and places, before Kerry Fast closes with her ethnographic description of the religious lives of the Old Colony Mennonite women in Bolivia.

To learn more about the history and lives of female Anabaptist/Mennonites during this Women’s History Month, see the following—non-exhaustive—list of recommendations:

[1] Katherine L. French, The Good Women of the Parish: Gender and Religion After the Black Death (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 4-5.

[2] An earlier version of this Anabaptist Historians post appeared on the Anxious Bench blog at Dr. Barr’s invitation. It compares Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ life and ministry with that of her evangelist brother, George R. Brunk II. See: A Tale of Two Mennonite Pastors: Siblings, Gender, and How to Disagree | Beth Allison Barr (patheos.com).

Spohn Collection of Ephrata Imprints Digitalized

In 2019 the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietists Studies at Elizabethtown College purchased the Clarence E. Spohn Collection. Spohn, a life-long resident of Ephrata, worked at the Ephrata Cloister from 1968-1996, serving as Museum Educator from 1988-1996.  The collection includes rare imprints from printers active in Ephrata from 1745 to about 1830, as well as artifacts pertaining to the Ephrata community (Ephrata Cloister), records and notes pertaining to legal transactions about the property, and Spohn’s copious research notes.  The collection is the single most important grouping of imprints from the various printers who worked at Ephrata, including the Cloister press and the Baumann and Ruth presses that followed. Because of his extensive work at Ephrata Cloister, Spohn’s research notes are a rich source of information about the imprints and the Ephrata community. Among the objects are a rare woodblock engraving of the Ephrata seal used in printing and a rare wooden communion chalice and bread plate (paten).  The collection is housed at the Hess Archives in the High Library at Elizabethtown College.  Hess Archives recently digitalized fifty-nine of the imprints and have made them available through Brethren Digital Archives. They can be accessed by way of the High Library’s research guides at: https://libraryguides.etown.edu/spohn.

The imprints include a rare liturgy printed by the Ephrata brothers in 1785 for the Moravian congregation in Lititz. The only other known copies are in the Moravian Music Foundation library in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and in the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Another imprint, Das Andencken etlicher Heiligen Martyrer (The Memorial of a Few Holy Martyrs), has special importance for Mennonites and Brethren. It is a small volume of two martyrs stories from the Dutch Mennonite Martyrs Mirror, translated into German by Bro. Theophilum, which was the spiritual name for Alexander Mack Jr., the youngest son of the founder of the German Baptist Brethren. Printed in 1745, the book was one of the earliest imprints of the Ephrata press. It was printed at about the time that Alexander Mack Jr. left Ephrata with his friends Israel and Gabriel Eckerlin, who were expelled by Conrad Beissel, the founder of Ephrata. By 1748, Mack had rejoined the Brethren in Germantown. This little book was a precursor to the complete translation of the Dutch Martyrs Mirror printed by the Ephrata brothers in 1748.  Among the other Mennonite related imprints available are the first and second printings of Mennonite bishop Christian Burkholder, Nützliche und Erbauliche Anrede an die Jugend (1804); and two printings of the Mennonite prayerbook, Die Ernsthafte Christenpflicht (1785) and (1808).

Edsel Burdge, Jr., research associate, Young Center

Digital Mennonites

By Samuel Boucher

When leaving the gates of our tightly knit Mennonite community, and we´re often asked, ¨What’s your nationality?¨ in a language, we may or may not understand well, the answer becomes messy very quickly, ‘I’m Mexican, holding a Canadian citizen, I don’t really speak Spanish or English, I speak Plautdietsch which is a non-written language, and the High German written language I was supposed to learn I didn’t really learn.1

On a cold February morning during the Canadian winter, the bedroom window was completely frosted. I shuffled out of my make-shift bed in the home office of my friend, David2—the principal of an elementary school in a small town in Ontario. I had been touring western Ontario giving a series of lectures to ‘Mennonite’ schools in small Canadian towns. Listowel—the town my friend worked in—had a sizable amount of Old Colony Mennonites, so David had invited me to give a lecture on Mennonite history. Many of these students are recent migrants from Mexico (while still holding Canadian passports). It was a surreal experience to see Mennonite boys and girls in winter coats and fleecy ear-flap hats dropped off by horse-and-buggy to rush into the heated school and pick up their school-issued Ipads and laptops to play academic programs and to write essays. This made me wonder how much Old Colony Mennonites and Old Order Amish are willing to accept these new digital technologies—specifically social media. In the following paper, I will explain the origins of the Mennonites, their conception of migration, their use of social media, and how virtual space may become the new horizon for migration to preserve their cultural identity.

Originating in the Radical Reformation, the Mennonites are an ethno-religious community dispersed in small colonies throughout the Americas. These followers of Menno Simmons have tended to split into small, decentralized churches, beginning with the Swiss Mennonites and the Dutch Mennonites. These two groups followed two different historical trajectories that led their descendants to end up in the Americas. As part of the Radical Reformation, the Mennonites were constantly on the edge of persecution under the pronouncements of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 (Cuius regio, eius religio/Whose realm, his religion).  The Dutch Mennonites fled repeated rounds of persecutions, first to East Prussia, then to New Russia, and finally to Canada. From Canada, the more conservative members and churches left in the 1920s for Latin America in order to maintain their Low German language schools and colony system; they are now known as the Old Colony Mennonites. The Swiss Mennonites fled Switzerland for the New World arriving in the Thirteen Colonies and slowly spreading westward into the Midwest and Canada. These are the familiar Old Order Amish well-known for their Pennsylvania Dutch language and anti-modern outlook.

Several characteristics bind the Mennonites together despite their diffusion.  Theologically—like other Anabapists—they reject infantile baptism and believe that church membership should be a conscious decision. Additionally, they uphold absolute pacifism and believe they must remain separated from the ‘World’ following their conceptualization of Two Kingdoms theology.3  For this reason, they tend towards anti-materialism and non-political engagement. Culturally, these insular communities speak their own language (Low German or Pennsylvania Dutch), have their own strictly enforced set of rules (called the Ordnung), and maintain their own customs and beliefs—probably the most well-known one being that they avoid or eschew much of modern technology. Despite these similarities, some differences are rather pronounced between the Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites.

While the Amish have spatially remained in North America and slowly creeped outward from their communities with nearby land purchases, the Low German Mennonites have a history of migration which has become a key aspect of their mythos. Because of their constant movement—The Netherlands-East Prussia-New Russia-Canada-Latin America—the Mennonites never truly settled any geographic parameter long enough to develop a mythic attachment to it.  Therefore, they do not hold ties to a nation-state for the ‘Kingdom of Heaven is their fatherland.’

Even beyond not having an attachment to a specific location, Mennonites have an internal need to migrate to replicate their colony system. It is via migration itself that Old Colony Mennonites maintain their community. The Mennonites enter each country with the promise to aid in the development of colonial projects and “accepting citizenship while simultaneously rejecting nationality through the building of a community that spans across state borders.”4 Ironically, it is the anti-modernist sects of the Mennonites who have tended to migrate most frequently transnationally and developed new regions. In the words of historian Royden Loewen, Mennonites “court modern economic forces in order to sustain an antimodern culture.”

Typically, the Mennonites migrate primarily as a means to escape persecution and assimilation. Yet, in many ways, Mennonite colonies also exist as sacred spaces to be differentiated with the outside world as they seek to separate themselves from the evil of the ‘world.’ They construct sacred spaces here on Earth in the form of their colonies, which are conceptually attempts at neo-kingdoms of Heaven. But where can Mennonites now migrate when every territory has now come under the control of the nation-state paradigm? For anthropologist Bottos, the answer is through this transnational network. Bottos explains, “cross-border strategies to flout their incorporation into the nation seems to be the Mennonite answer to the globalization of the nation-state.”5 Yet, another possibility exists. More and more Old Colony Mennonites (as well as Old Order Amish) are using social media as means to maintain this network. The internet has created a means to distort spatial reality by shrinking the distance between these dispersed colonies. It is quite possible that Mennonites will now turn to virtual space as the new frontier of migration.

Several studies have examined the social media and internet use of the Amish and Mennonites. Anthropologist Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar conducted a comparative survey of the Old Order Amish and Orthodox Jews. Rivka specifically studied whether the Amish women themselves viewed social media and the internet as a net positive or negative. Rivka surveyed forty women of the Old Order Amish community living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.6 None of the Amish women interviewed had smartphones and only eight percent had ever browsed the Internet.7 While a small number, this may be surprising for the average reader who conceives of the Amish as embodied visions of a distilled past. Despite this minority, most Amish women cast an evil eye toward the internet. Rivka categorized the responses to social media and internet use by the Amish women into:

(1) destruction and ravage—danger, dangerous, catastrophe, spoils the spiritual world, a weapon, harmful; (2) degrading—garbage and filth, bad, shocking, filthy, horrible; (3) temptation—seductive, slippery slope; (4) access—uncensored information, worldly; (5) religious exclusion—impure, evil things forbidden by the church; (6) spiritual effects—destroys souls, influences thoughts; and (7) a waste of time—takes time away from family time.8

In this way, Rivka found that the Old Order Amish women maintained a primarily negative view of social media.  But while the mothers are rejecting social media, some of the youths are embracing it.

 ‘No other site . . . has taken off as massively as Facebook amongst the Amish teens. Everyone is on Facebook.”9 This was told to investigative journalist Justine Sharrock, writing for the popular online blog Buzzfeed in 2013, by twenty-two-year-old who had recently left the Amish. Anthropologist Charles Janzti has recently studied this phenomenon in his article, “Amish Youth and Social Media: A Phase or a Fatal Error.” He has found that many Facebook posts by Amish teens show context of parties and drinking alcohol. One such photo of ‘Amish beer pong’ received twenty likes and three shares.10 Still, the degree to which Amish youth have accepted social media is difficult to estimate. A separate estimate suggests that the earlier quote is widely exaggerated with only one to two percent of Amish youth using Facebook.11 Other specialists on Amish society have suggested that these teens were most likely still in their Rumspringa12 years and moreover, that “many of the youth on Facebook are on the margins, not mainstream Amish youth.”13 But it is very possible that social media is set to take off with the Amish in similar ways that have happened with their religious cousins, the Old Colony Mennonites.

It is estimated that about eighty-five percent of Old Colony Mennonite students in Canada have cell phones while most still do not have televisions nor access to internet in their homes.14 In the 2014 article, “Living on the Edge: Old Colony Mennonites and Digital Technology Usage,” scholar Kira Turner has found that “OCM accept digital technologies more readily than other traditional Mennonites; notably they use cell phones, communicate through social media such as Facebook, and text their families in Mexico.”15 This is especially important when one considers the Mennonites in their transnational context. The Old Colony Mennonites are connected via digital space to their relations in colonies in Latin America while residing in North America. In this way, ironically, certain Mennonites have utilized social media in order to maintain their colony structure and anti-modernist outlook.

Mennonites have used social media for a variety of reasons—including business, networking, and cultural promotion. Mennonite businesses make use of social media for purposes of marketing. A good example is juwie16, an apple juice company hailing from Mexico with the tagline—El Gran Sabor Menonita—the great Mennonite flavor (see the picture below). The Mennonites in Chihuahua are well-known for their apple orchards—controversially, at times, because of the overuse of limited water resources by the Mennonites to irrigate their thirsty orchards. Logically, these Mennonites have then processed their apples into apple juice for added value.

These Mexican Mennonites are much more modern and are more willing to make technological and cultural concessions than the typical horse-and-buggy sects. Importantly, on their website, juwie notes how Cuauhtemoc is considered of the city of the three cultures: Mestizo, Raramuri and Mennonite.

Other more anti-modern groups also make use of the internet and social media for business. Several Amish and Mennonite businesses have combined to publish their businesses on JustPlainBusiness.17 These Amish and Mennonites are joined together as ‘plain’ to distinguish from other Mennonite groups. Plain designates that sect is anti-modern and enforces strict rules for clothing and behavior. One such business is Helmuth’s Country Store which sells Mennonite-built furniture and other home goods (see the photo below).


It is not solely Mennonites in North America using social media for business. I have found several Instagram accounts tied to the Mennonite colonies in Argentina. Of particular note is the coloniasmenonitas account,19 which appears to be a business account for a Mennonite business specializing in the manufacturing of silos (an interesting niche20 that the Mennonites have developed in the Pampas). Despite the commercial nature of their account, the business also posts general photos of the colonists on their farms, churches, and in everyday life (see the photos below).

The Mennonites in Argentina are Old Colony conservative and horse-and-buggy sects. This is evidenced by the primary photos found with the #menonitasargentina. This compares interestingly with the hashtag #menonitasbrasil where the Mennonites exist mostly as a religious category and have culturally assimilated into the mainstream Brazilian society (see the photo below).

Colonias Menonitas are also on Facebook as a business account:

As the posts are primarily in Spanish, it seems that the Facebook business account is mostly marketing to the wheat farmers (needing silos to store grain) in the pampas of Argentina.

No Mennonites have used social media in order to become an ‘influencer’ with one notable exception: Dietsche mejal, German Girl, (see the photo below) who has accounts on almost all major platforms. Her followers are in the hundreds of thousands across her platforms, and she maintains millions of likes and views. Dietsche mejal—schooled in Canada and living in Mexico—provides content in three languages: English, Low German, and Spanish. She creates content both for Mennonites (with inside jokes and cultural references) as well as non-Mennonites (explanations of Mennonite culture and history).

Dietsche mejal is not the only account to promote Mennonite culture. Comparable to The Onion or The Babylon Bee, The Daily Bonnet21 is a satirical news site written by Andrew Unger based in Steinbach, Manitoba (a historically Mennonite city) catered to a Mennonite audience. Unger also operates a local news site with his wife Erin called Mennotoba which plays off the history of the pioneering Mennonite settlements in Manitoba.  These two publications re-enforce Mennonite identity with readership residing across various nation-states including but not limited to Mexico, Canada, United States, and Bolivia.

While business and cultural promotion are interesting uses, the main application of social media by Low German Mennonites is to maintain familial connections across various states and nations. Despite being a transnational group with far-flung colonies across the Americas, Mennonites are a close-knit community. As most transnational groups, families end up being split up on two sides of the globe. In The Madonna of 115th Street, Orsi notes the stress and hardship of this separation for Italian families in the early twentieth century when he writes,

Some immigrants, to be sure, pined for the old country and longed to be back in familiar surroundings. This desire was particularly acute in times of crisis or loss. It could be strong enough to kill: Edward Corsi’s mother died after a long depression brought on by the dislocations of immigration. This powerful nostalgia was alive among the first generation, and those who felt it most acutely served as revealing mirrors to those who were trying to still this longing.22

In the 1920s, many of the Mennonites returned to Canada due to this same feeling of longing for family. Today, WhatsApp and Facebook are the primary platforms for older conservative Mennonites in order to maintain these contacts.

Of these two, perhaps the most important platform for the Mennonite transnational network is WhatsApp. Both Low German and Pennsylvania Dutch are primarily spoken languages. Thus, Mennonites’ preference for WhatsApp is due to its VoiceNote function. With the VoiceNote function, Mennonites are able to leave vocal recordings to their contacts rather than writing and reading text messages. As Mennonites exist in various nations, they may write and read English, Spanish, German, or Portuguese to varying degrees. Low German is the connecting language for this community. As a spoken language, only a social media platform with internet usage that provided a function that enabled a primarily oral message system would the Mennonites have been able to properly use in their transnational context. This was noted by Anna Wall, a healthcare interpreter, in her blogs on the Mexican Mennonite community in Canada. Wall writes,

As the years passed and the rest of the world evolved, more and more of us became illiterate. Living in a Spanish-speaking country, speaking Plautdiesch at home, also known as Low German and reading and speaking only High German at school and church, writing letters as a means to stay connected became more and more challenging, to say the least.23

Wall goes on to state that the app is especially useful for transnational groups that crisscross borders since it does not change plans or phones, a transnational media for a transnational group.

Amongst themselves, the use of new technologies is a constant debate in horse-and-buggy communities such as the Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites. Typically, the Mennonites have addressed new technologies in three ways: assimilation, limited adoption, or separation. Additionally, some Mennonites have circumvented this problem of modern technology has been to outsource the function to a third party: they hire someone. This is especially common for horse-and-buggy communities to hire taxis for travel into town when they are forbidden to own cars. Other debates have split churches. Rivka notes that “The emergence of landline phones set off a big debate among the Amish and led to a schism in 1910, with one-fifth of the congregation leaving the Amish church. The Amish see the telephone as ‘an umbilical cord tied to a dangerous worldly influence.’”24 In today’s context, the debate consists of prohibition of cellphones and social media use being a constant feature in their preachers’ sermons.25 Still, several Amish interviewees seem unworried about this development. Janzti writes, “An Amish father, who grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, suggested that there is little difference between what can be seen on Facebook today and what exists in photo albums tucked away from his era of Rumspringa.”26 Each Mennonite community has contended with these new technologies in different ways. Turner elaborates, “The David Martin Mennonites keep their computers in the barn or shop for business purposes but not in the house, while Markham-Waterloo Mennonites have gone to great expense to create their own server so they can manage their members’ Internet access.”27 Therefore, the response to technology exists on a wide spectrum for the Mennonites. More progressive Amish and Mennonite communities have phones and use social media while the stricter communities do not have access to smartphones, the internet, or social media.28

It is important to understand that Mennonites do not simply reject all technologies out of hand. New technology is simply not accepted without stiff deliberation. The main focus is on the net benefit or negative that the adoption of the technology will have on the community. Thus, Mennonites consider the usefulness of the technology while technology for entertainment’s sake is rejected out of hand in the more restrictive communities. There is also a distinction between spaces. Business spaces are considered separate from the home space and are given more allowances for more technological use due to this consideration. Business is inherently connected to the outside world due to the needs of supply and customership.

Limited adoption has often been taken by these communities where they have implemented technologies with modifications that allow a certain degree of social control on their usage. Plainizing digital technologies into non-internet access contraptions.29 This ‘plainization’ has even become a verifiable niche industry within the Amish community. One entrepreneur, Allen Hoover, retrofits tools to run on alternative power with the tagline—made specifically for the plain people by the plain people. He has also created what he calls Classic Word Processors, essentially computers without internet access.30 The Hutterites—a related Anabaptist group—have even created their own internal network service within their colonies to maintain control over what comes in through their servers.31

Several scholars have commented on the possible consequences of social media on these isolated communities. Rivka views the use of social media as contrary to the core values of community-oriented groups such as the Amish. She writes, “The individualism, autonomy, personal empowerment, and networking that characterize new media pose a challenge to the core values of religious communities: traditionalism, cultural preservation, collective identity, hierarchy, patriarchy, authority, self-discipline, and censorship.32” For Rivka, the internet and social media poses a danger of breaking the self-imposed boundary of sacred space (home) and ‘the world.’33 Rivka believes that social media use will break down community boundaries following studies by scholar Meyrowitz (1985) who observed that electronic media erodes the boundary between the private and public spheres.34 Importantly, Rivka primarily interviewed Amish women due to the concept of ‘gatekeeper’ for traditional values. According to Rivka, women exist in Amish Mennonite communities as the main gatekeepers for religio-cultural preservation.35

While Janzti ponders that “perhaps Amish young people have always engaged in this level of self-reflection and discussions regarding their perceived experience and the perception that those outside of the Amish have”, but he ultimately seems unconvinced. He notes that “the difference today, however, is that the internet both provides a window on the Amish world and gives the Amish a platform to reflect on themselves and their culture in a public fashion.”  Ultimately, Janzti agrees with Rivka that Facebook (and other forms of social media) are contrary to Amish-Mennonite beliefs. These platforms are designed to be self-oriented with “the whole premise of the ‘selfie’ is the individual.”36 Furthermore, these platforms have a fundamental difference between earlier technologies such as television: they allow for the interactive engagement of the user with the outside world.37 Janzti argues that the internet’s true danger is not in exposure to sex and violence or in change of Amish behavior during their youth but in changing the core values of the Amish community.38

Anthropologist Kira Turner disagrees with Rivka’s and Janzti’s conception of the Mennonites. Turner explains that “While digital technologies may create tensions within the community, they also act to blur lines between geographical boundaries, extend social networks, and allow Old Colony Mennonites to create their own vision of the society in which they wish to live.”39 Adoption of new technologies are becoming increasingly necessary in order to navigate and function in the modern world. This includes but not limited to: schoolwork, filling out tax forms, accessing government documents such as immigration requests, banking, applying for employment, and making purchases.40 Furthermore, Turner notes that “digital technology usage within the Old Colony (community) expands and contracts the walls surrounding isolation and separation from mainstream society. Although it allows ideas to flow between groups, it also allows for the shrinking of space locally and globally. It may inevitably lead some to move away from the church, but it also may lead some to strengthen their ties.”41 Evidently, Turner assumes a moderate course for digital technology in Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonite communities through deliberate adoption.

To this point, it is interesting to note that the aforementioned Amish youth on Facebook do not seem to be interacting with youth outside of their Amish circles.42  Chris Weber who works with Amish teens in Indiana notes that ‘they use Facebook to do what they would do anyway—connect with one another—and they would not spend their time playing video games on their phones or Facebook.”43 In Pennsylvania, one Amish group have even created a Facebook page solely due to the promotion of benefit volleyball tournaments—a common sport amongst Amish youth.44 The Amish youth have primarily used social media in similar ways that they have used previous technologies.

Social media can be used as a means to maintain Amish-Mennonite separation with the world. In Diaspora in the Countryside, historian Royden Loewen examines how global economic forces uprooted rural folk and displaced them from their family farms. Diaspora uses the comparative history of two Mennonite communities (one in the United States and one in Canada) to explain the ways in which historical and cultural differences between these two settings influenced the Mennonites response to the Great Disjuncture.  Mennonites in Hanover had more critical mass to sustain their cultural cohesiveness and lived in a more openly multiculturally accepting Canadian society which allowed for the maintenance of their culture.  On the other hand, Mennonites in Meade had more social pressures to assimilate into the general American consensus.  The author writes, “Clearly what sociologists of the 1950s claimed to be seeing, an assimilation into mainstream America, was occurring.  Mennonites were dressing, speaking, and thinking like their American neighbors.”45 In this way, it is possible that the Mennonites could use social media such as WhatsApp as a means to sustain their critical mass globally and prevent assimilation.

Much work has been done considering the ideas of space and identity. In her book, Performing Piety, cultural anthropologist Elaine Peña writes how:

De los Angeles also spoke of the need to keep and teach “nuestra cultura, nuestra lenguaje” (our culture, our language) to our children . . . Her statements made layers of time and history, tradition and migration, spirituality and affiliation explicit. Michel de Certeau’s claim that “space is a practiced place” provides an optic through which to examine the idea that the specters of past performances . . . Space, as de Certeau suggests, is always in the process of transformation.46

Pena is attempting to understand the production of sacred space. Following ethnographer Pena, I am attempting to consider questions of space and sanctity. Much like Catholics in central Mexico and the Chicago area created Guadalupan shrines as a means to produce spaces of sanctity in a processual manner, Mennonites also produce sacred spaces in the form of their closed colonies. Rather than a single building or shrine, it is the colony territory and the colony network itself that is the sacred space which is created via the process of migration and construction. The act of separation from the proverbial ‘World’ and the Old Colony Mennonite and Old Order Amish attempts at living a simple and peaceful lifestyle produces this sacred space. In this way, I follow Pena’s advice to view “the migration networks and the approaches to local integration as a process— as layers of culture, history, and traditions imbued in specific locations at specific times.”47 Mennonites connect their transnational network via Mennonite mythology to “reinforce the idea of connectivity among sacred spaces in disparate locations based on comparable embodied practices.”  I also follow Orsi who explains that the sacredness of a space can be separated from its location. For Orsi, meaning and sanctity is derived from the ‘lived religion’ embodied in the practice and imagination of certain spaces. Thus, spaces become sacred due to the actions and beliefs of the actors using these spaces rather than in the spaces themselves. The behavior of the Digital Mennonites themselves will convert these online platforms into sacred spaces.

 From the Reformation to the present, the Mennonites have consistently attempted to develop their own sacred spaces in their colony network. Fleeing persecution and modernity, the Old Colony Mennonites constantly migrate between nation-states while the Old Order Amish settled apart from society within North America. With the complete coverage of territory on the globe within the nation-state paradigm and the increasing interconnectedness of society, the Mennonites need to assimilate, adapt, or use virtual space as a new frontier of digital migration. As previously shown, with Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, these Digital Mennonites have used and are continuing to use social media as a means of preserving their cultural cohesion by transferring their closed colonies which exist as sacred spaces (their neo-Kingdoms of Heaven) into virtual sacred spaces in online isolated communities.

Samuel Boucher is a historian of the Low German Mennonite colonies in Latin America. His main research focuses on the transnational network of the Mennonites and the main drives for Mennonite economic success.


Cañás-Bottos, Lorenzo. 2008. “Old Colony Mennonites in Argentina and Bolivia: Nation Making, Religious Conflict and Imagination of the Future.” Brill.

Janzti, Charles. Jan 2017. “Amish Youth and Social Media: A Phase or a Fatal Error.” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 91 71 – 92.

Kraybill, Donald. 1998. “Plain Reservations: Amish and Mennonite Views of Media and Computers.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 13(2) 99-110.

Loewen, Royden. 2006. Diaspora in the Countryside: Two Mennonite Communities and Mid-Twentieth Century Rural Disjuncture. Toronto: University of Illinois Press and University of Toronto Press.

Orsi, Robert Anthony. 2010. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880 1950 Third Edition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Peña, Elaine A. 2011. Performing Piety Making Space Sacred with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Los Angeles and London: University of California Press Berkeley.

Rohrer, Eunice. 2004. The Old Order Mennonites and Mass Media: Electronic Media and Socialization. Doctoral dissertation. Morgantown: West Virginia University.

Shahar, Rivka Neriya-Ben. 2020. “Mobile internet is worse than the internet; it can destroy our community”: Old Order Amish and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women’s responses to cellphone and smartphone use.” The Information Society, 36:1 1-18.

Shahar, Rivka Neriya-Ben. 2016. “Negotiating agency: Amish and ultra-Orthodox women’s responses to the Internet.” Sapir Academic College, Israel new media & society 2017, Vol. 19(1) 81–95.

Sharrock, Justine. 2 July 2013. “The Surprising, Ingenious Amish Gadget Culture” BuzzFeed News. http://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/justinesharrock/the-surprising-ingenious-amish-gadget-culture.

Turner, Kira. 2014. “Living on the Edge: Old Colony Mennonites and Digital Technology Usage.” Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 2(2) 165-185.

Wall, Anna. 2020. “WhatsApp With the Mennonites?” Woolwich Community Health Care. Nov 10. https://wchcvirtualhealth.wixsite.com/mysite/post/whatsapp-with-the-mennonites.

[1] (Wall 2020)

[2] I had met David in my Low German course in Alymer in Southern Ontario.

[3] Each Protestant sect conceptualizes the Two Kingdoms Theology differently. For the Anabaptists, the two kingdoms are the kingdom of Earth ruled by the devil and the kingdom of Heaven ruled by God.

[4] (Bottos 2008), 2.

[5] Ibid., 71.

[6] (Shahar 2016), 84.

[7] (Shahar 2020), 8.

[8] (Shahar 2016), 86.

[9] (Janzti 2017 ), 80.

[10] Ibid., 86.

[11] Ibid., 72.

[12] Rumspringa means ‘jumping around’ and the Old Colony Mennonites have a similar conception. A similar American idea is ‘sowing your wild oats.’ Essentially, these Amish youths are not yet baptized church members and have lower behavioral expectations.

[13] (Janzti Jan 2017 ), 72.

[14] (Turner 2014), 171.

[15] Ibid., 170.

[16] https://juwie.mx/

[17] https://justplainbusiness.com/

[18] https://justplainbusiness.com/helmuths-country-store/

[19] https://coloniasmenonitas.com/

[20] https://siloscoloniamenonita.com.ar/

[21] https://dailybonnet.com/

[22] (Orsi 2010), 20.

[23] (Wall 2020)

[24] (Shahar 2020), 5.

[25] Ibid., 5.

[26] (Janzti 2017 ), 87.

[27] (Turner 2014), 170.

[28] (Janzti Jan 2017 ), 81.

[29] (Shahar 2020), 5.

[30] (Sharrock, 2013)

[31] Discussion with John Sheridan

[32] (Shahar 2016), 82.

[33] Ibid., 85.

[34] (Shahar 2020), 2.

[35] (Shahar 2016), 87.

[36] (Janzti 2017 ), 87.

[37] Ibid., 89.

[38] Ibid., 91.

[39] (Turner 2014), 165.

[40] Ibid., 172.

[41] Ibid., 181.

[42] (Janzti 2017 ), 72.

[43] Ibid., 80.

[44] (Janzti 2017 ), 85.

[45] (Loewen 2006), 101.

[46] (Peña 2011), 43.

[47] Ibid., 10.

A Letter from Maggie Leonard

John Thiesen

The Mennonite Library and Archives recently received a box of papers of Heinrich H. Epp (1857-1933), who was a minister in the Bethesda Mennonite Church in Henderson, Nebraska, for many decades and elder of the congregation 1910-1924. As I unpacked the box, a folded-up document caught my attention when I noticed the signature “Maggie Leonard, Mennonite Mission, Darlington, Ind. Terr.”

Margaret/Maggie Leonard, first person baptized at Darlington, Oklahoma, mission in 1888; this photo probably taken while she was attending school in Halstead, Kansas (Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas)

Maggie Leonard was the first person baptized in the mission work conducted by the General Conference Mennonite Church among Cheyenne and Arapaho at Darlington and Cantonment in what is today Oklahoma. She was baptized in 1888, but did not come from the two groups among whom the Mennonites were working. Her father Joseph Leonard was white (likely an Indian agency employee) and her mother was Caddo. (Maggie Leonard is listed as Caddo in the 1900 census). She also attended the Indian Industrial School at Halstead, Kansas, run by Christian Krehbiel, and also the Mennonite Seminary (teacher training school) at Halstead (during 1890-1892).

This is the text of the document:

What I learned on my trip to Kansas.

When we went to Kansas I was very glad. And I learned some things that I did not know before.

I learned how to milk a little but not quite good enough yet. And that we must clean the yard every Saturday or at any time when it is dirty around the house. And I learnt how to play some games that I did not know before, and how they dry apples, cherries, peaches etc. And I learned how they put they prepare <sic> pickles for Winter. I learned something about the railroad I did not know it could run so fast, and that so many people could be in it at the same time. And I even saw a great many cattle in the train. I saw how the people thrash grain. I think it is nice to look at the thrashing machine when it is working. And I know how the people spend their Sundays. They always go to church. I wonder how many of you likes to go to church. I think it is nice to go to church or to Sunday Schools. I learned how they can make milk into clabber in a short while by putting rennet in it and then from the clabber they make cheese. I learned how they prepare can fruits. And I know how they water the flowers with a pump and it has a long rubber pipe fastened to it. And the person who waters the flowers and the grass, takes it and waters whatever he wants to water. And I know now how the large cities look and the hotels & stores, and the large streets. And I know many more German people than I would if I stayed here. I saw how they work on their farms & orchards. I think it is nicer to live on farm than to live in a large city. Because there is so much noise in the large cities and it may happen sometime that the city might catch fire and then may be the inhabitants that live in the city might have to burn up. And I also saw some large bridges, some are for the wagons to go over, and some are for the train. When the train goes over the bridge, it makes very much noise. Now I am very glad that I went to Kansas. I would not know so much now if I did not go there.

Maggie Leonard.
Mennonite Mission.
Darlington Ind. Terr.

It is unclear if she is describing her time in the Halstead schools or whether she had made a trip to Kansas before that already.

Maggie Leonard did not retain formal ties to the Mennonites after her baptism. Sometime in the early 1890s she married someone named Garen and had a son. In 1898 she married a widower, John David Downing, and they had 7 more children. Downing was apparently a prominent rancher and Freemason in Grady County, Oklahoma. He is listed as Cherokee in the 1900 census. He died in 1923. (see https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/53563566/john-david-downing).

Margaret Downing did keep some personal contacts with Mennonites over the years. In March 1936, Missionary News and Notes, the publication of the Women’s Missionary Association of the General Conference Mennonite Church, included this note:

Last week Mrs. Goerz received a letter from Mrs. Margaret Downing–nee Maggie Leonard. Some of the older readers will remember that she, then 17 years old was the first Indian who accepted Christ and was baptized in our Mission at Darlington on June 3rd, 1888. Rev. H. R. Voth was the missionary stationed there then. Later Maggie came to Krehbieltown, at Halstead, Kansas and during that time she attended the Mennonite Seminary at Halstead. She has been married twice, is mother of eight children–three girls and five boys–all living. At present she is keeping house for her youngest son who is in the government service as clerk in the Jicarilla Indian Agency at Dulce, New Mexico.

Mrs. Goerz was Martha Krehbiel Goerz, Mrs. Rudolph A. Goerz, a daughter of Christian Krehbiel. She was an editor of the Missionary News and Notes. Martha Goerz may well have been acquainted with Maggie Leonard already from her Halstead school days.

Margaret Downing returned to her home territory towards the end of her life. Here’s the death notice from the Chickasha Daily Express, Aug. 14, 1966, p. 3. (see also https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/25408163/margaret-l-downing)

Funeral services were held Thursday in Arcadia for Mrs. Margaret Downing, 97, who died Aug. 2 in Oklahoma City. Mr. and Mrs. Downing were early ranchers north of Verden. Surviving children are: Mrs. Thelma Moring, Mrs. Pearl Dennero, Mrs. Rena Topatche, Ernest and John Downing, all of Oklahoma City; and Eden Downing, of California.

A major unanswered question is, how did Maggie Leonard’s early handwritten account of a visit to Kansas end up in the possession of Heinrich H. Epp in Henderson, Nebraska? He was not a member of the General Conference mission board; there is no indication he ever visited Darlington, nor that Maggie Leonard ever visited Henderson. The link between the two persons remains a mystery.

Notes from Mennonite/s Writing

The Mennonite/s Writing conference was September 30 to October 2, 2022 at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana. It was a meaningful space for me of cross-pollination, listening and learning. Here are a few highlights for folks who weren’t able to attend and might be interested. You can read the full schedule here.


On the afternoon of September 29 Julia Kasdorf and Steven Rubin led us in a four hour pre-conference workshop on documentary photography. They were inspired by the work of writers and photographers funded during the Works Progress Administration. As part of the workshop they had us interview and photograph people in and around downtown. The resulting slide deck with photos and quotes was on display during the conference as a way of introducing out of town conference participants to the community.

The opening plenary was with Julia Kasdorf, one of the most prominent promoters and creators of Mennonite literature in the US. She talked about Shale Play her latest book of poems (with photographs by Steven Rubin) that looks at the impact of fracking in her community in central Pennsylvania.


First thing on Friday morning I was part of a panel on technology and Mennonite writing organized by Hope Nisly. Melanie Springer Mock talked about the growing community of Mennonite content creators on TikTok. Adam Schrag looked at the Mennonite meme pool and the parallels with Martyrs Mirror and I talked about the parallels between the socially disruptive impact of pamphlets in the radical reformation and the use of social media by the Arab Spring and other mass movements using the internet to create space for dissent.

Mennonite writer Sofia Samatar spoke during the plenary on Friday morning. She read from her new book, The White Mosque, a memoir tracing the journey of an apocalyptic Mennonite community in Central Asia. I was excited to discover that she’s written a fantasy series that I hadn’t heard of before. In the Q&A I asked her about the subject of whiteness in her memoir (her father is Somalian and her mother is white Mennonite) and she described what it is like to always having to convince other Mennonite that she is Mennonite, but she also pointed out in a playful way that she values the random, a theme that would continue through the conference.


On Saturday morning, Ervin Beck surveyed the community of plain poetry among plain Anabaptists through careful study of their poetry publication which has been published regularly for over twenty years. Ervin encouraged those of us at the conference to take an approach of “benign neglect” this community. On the same panel, Christopher Dick summarized the Mennonite Socialist Vision of Jakob G. Ewert, who was confined to a bed for twenty-five years and Joel Horst Nofziger looked at how Mennonite understandings and tellings of our history influences power dynamics in our theology.

It was clear that while Literary Mennonite writers and critical review of Mennonite Literature have formed a key part of these gatherings (happening every few years for thirty-twoyears) there is also a growing space for other forms. One example was getting to hear my sister, Abigail Nafziger and her librarian colleague Matilda Yoder talk about their podcast “Just Plain Wrong” in a panel on humor. They described some of their work humorously reviewing Amish Romance as “reading these books so you don’t have to.” Also on their Saturday morning panel was Andrew Unger of “The Daily Bonnet” and Johnny Wideman of Theatre of the Beat. All the panelists kept us laughing and also thinking about the line between Popular and Literary work. In the Q&A time folklorists Magdalene Redekop reminded us of the tradition of the female Mennonite trickster. 

In the plenary on Saturday afternoon, Sheri Hostetler interviewed Rachel Yoder about her book (and upcoming movie) Nightbitch, about a mother who finds herself becoming a dog. Sheri told a story from Carl Jung’s The Red Book in which he talks about being haunted by Anabaptist ghosts. The ghosts are deeply frustrated because they died with the purest of belief but cannot find rest. Jung tells Ezechiel, the spokesperson for the group that he did not “live his animal” (see passage here). This theme of embodiment and learning to be outside of our heads was also a key theme in the week.

Later on Saturday afternoon there was a panel on Mennonite speculative fiction featuring Yoder, Samatar (see above) and Jessica Penner, author of Shaken in the Water, a magical realism novel that was also new to me. The panel talked about Mennonite and Anabaptist connections with wilderness.

On Saturday night we heard from Hildi Froese Tiessen, organizer of the first Mennonite/s Writing conference (in 1990) and she quoted Magdalene Redekop about how these Mennonite/s Writing gatherings are about play.

My friend John Kampen talked about he valued the space for play and speculation that he found at the conference in light of other spaces that can be more focused on correct ethics. That was a helpful framing for me to reflect on my own experience of Mennonite and social justice spaces, particularly around when a focus on the “right thing” can get in the way of being fully in our bodies.

Daniel Born was on a panel talking about Mennonite Noir as a genre and his novel Unpardonable Sins. This was a highlight for me because Dan co-authored the book with my friend and mentor Dale Suderman who died in January 2020.

I also got to listen to a lot of wonderful poetry from Jeff Gundy, Julia Baker, Jean Janzen, Julia Kasdorf and many others.


On the closing panel Sunday afternoon, there was a fruitful dialogue between Robert Zacharias and Laura Hostetler about how many people in the room have a foot in multiple worlds. Laura (a scholar of cartography and empire) reminded us that margins are not just about marginalization. It can be useful to have a foot in multiple worlds. The margins in ecology are a very fruitful space: beaches and areas between forests and grasslands are examples.

I’m grateful to have spent three days playing on the margins with this community of writers, readers and critics. It’s a fruitful space.

A big thanks to Ann Hostetler, Daniel Shank Cruz and the entire planning committee for pulling this event together.

I’ll close with this story: in her keynote Rachel Yoder shared about how her car broke down the night on her way from her home to the conference.  She described how demoralized she was stuck just inside the Indiana border, still an hour and a half short of Goshen. She was sitting there when a minivan with conference organizer Ann Hostetler (and others rolled up). The van door and someone said: hop in, we are going to get ice cream! This story embodied something special about this gathering for me.

You can see photos from the event here.

Pandora Press in 2022

Pandora Press has had an interesting history leading up to the present, and this year has seen significant changes in its leadership, vision, and publishing model. Founded in the 1990s by C. Arnold Snyder, an historian at Conrad Grebel University College, and continued by Christian Snyder in the 2010s culminating with the publication of Jo Snyder’s The Vegan Mennonite Kitchen, Pandora Press is now – as they say – under new management.

Following many fruitful conversations with Christian Snyder in 2021, as of January 2022 I am now the Director of Pandora Press. To say the very least, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to grow and transform its work over the coming years, and I have much to share with readers of Anabaptist Historians in what follows.

First, I should say something about what Pandora Press has been doing so far this year and last. Our 2021 featured title, Jo Snyder’s cookbook The Vegan Mennonite Kitchen, continues to make a strong contribution to the conversation on Mennonite culinary cultures through its delicious recipes and storied reflections (not to mention a review in Chatelaine).

The Vegan Mennonite Kitchen: Old Recipes for a Changing World, by Jo Snyder. 186 color pages. 2021. ISBN: 978-1-926599-71-7. www.veganmennonite.com

The past few months have seen the publication of two titles that were in-press in late 2021, the first of which was recently covered in an interview with Lucille Marr, published here on Anabaptist Historians. The second title adds to the Bridgefolk series that collects papers from Mennonite Catholic dialogues, with a cover designed by the talented Meghan Harder.

Menno’s Descendants in Quebec: The Mission Activity of Four Anabaptist Groups 1956 – 2021, by Richard Lougheed. 2021. 255 pp. ISBN: 9781926599724

Intercessory Prayer and the Communion of Saints: Mennonite and Catholic Perspectives, Edited by Darrin W. Snyder Belousek and Margaret R. Pfeil. 2022. 260 pp. ISBN: 978-1926599786

Two further titles that contribute to established themes in Pandora Press’s publication history have recently been released, the first of which is a joint effort with the Masthof Press (which distributes the book in the United States), and the second of which is a new edition of a standout title in our spiritual care series.

Making Wars Cease: A Survey of the MCC Peace Section, 1940–1990, by Urbane Peachey. 2022. 320 pages. ISBN: 978-1926599885

Spiritual Caregivers in the Hospital: Windows to Competent Practice. Third Edition, Edited by Leah D. Bueckert and Daniel S. Schipani. 2022. 348 pp. ISBN 979-888627349-6

Beyond these four books, Pandora Press is excited to announce the following new and forthcoming publications. I have recently had the pleasure of editing a booklet on theologies of the border and the European refugee crisis, authored by Hadje Cresencio Sadje, a prolific graduate student who is currently a visiting fellow at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre.

Theology at the Border: Community Peacemaker Teams and the Refugee Crisis in Europe, by Hadje Cresencio Sadje. 2022, 109 pp. ISBN: 978-1926599755

We are also very close to publishing a novel that stages a unique literary and philosophical encounter between Mennonite identity and Ancient Greek thought. Ronald Tiessen’s Menno in Athens narrates a pilgrimage that will speak to both the hearts and minds of its readers.

Menno in Athens: A Novel, by Ronald Tiessen. With original artwork by Lisa Rollo Kipp. 2022. 200 pp. ISBN: 978-1-926599-74-8

Beyond these titles, late 2022 will also see the publication of a book of weekly meditations on favourite hymns by Carla Klassen, an expansion of the recent Zeman Lectures by Gary Waite, a substantial study of Anabaptist oath refusal by Edmund Pries, and the first publication of Cornelius J. Dyck’s dissertation on the Dutch Anabaptist figure Hans de Ries, introduced by Mary Sprunger.

Spring 2022 Catalogue

Over the past six months I have been bringing older Pandora Press titles back into print, so if you have been looking for one of our books that has gone out of print it is likely that it is now available again. Our new catalogue includes a near-comprehensive list of our books, both past and present, so please see here for a PDF copy.

A New Logo for Pandora Press

To mark the major changes that have taken place over the past year in both its directorship and vision, and to signal its movement into new and exciting futures, I am excited to present the new Pandora Press logo, designed by Winnipeg illustrator and designer, and author of the highly-praised graphic novel Shelterbelts, Jonathan Dyck (https://www.jonathandyck.com).

The new logo is meant to be as evocative as the name of the press, calling to mind the tumult of Pandora’s box, which in Hesiod’s Theogony contains the foreboding promise of both positive and negative futures. In addition to the new logo, new books published in 2022 and onward will also include a larger and more detailed image that combines several themes connected to the press’s identity.


Although Pandora Press remains an independent publisher, informal friends of the press include the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre (directed by Kyle Gingerich Hiebert), the Institute of Anabaptist Mennonite Studies at Conrad Grebel University College (Associate Director, David Neufeld), the Canadian Mennonite University Press (now run by Sue Sorensen), the Institute of Mennonite Studies at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (led by Jamie Pitts and David Cramer), and Gelassenheit Publications (a new publishing company run by Jonathan Seiling).

Collegial relationships of mutual support are the only viable future available for Mennonite publishing and Mennonite higher education, and my aim is for Pandora Press to be a key part of that future by providing a home for scholars in and around the interdisciplinary field of Mennonite Studies to publish their work.


Pandora Press invites submissions of both popular and scholarly manuscripts, including revisions of dissertations. Our established specializations are in Anabaptist history and Mennonite theology, but we are expanding in new interdisciplinary directions and we encourage submissions from scholars across the social sciences and humanities, as well as from literary writers in the ever-blooming discourse on Mennonite/s Writing.

For its academic titles, Pandora Press uses double-blind peer review and consultation with its newly formed editorial board in order to ensure a high standard of quality and scholarly rigour. Not all manuscripts will be accepted of course (for reasons of both quality and capacity), but Pandora Press is committed to helping early career scholars place their work with publishers that will help them succeed in their chosen fields, whether by referral to other editors or through constructive suggestions about form and content.


Pandora Press is currently seeking funding to pay for three major translations in the area of Anabaptist history, only one of which can be made public because contracts have yet to be signed. And it is an exciting project indeed!

In 1972 the Reformation History scholar Gottfried Seebaß submitted his lengthy habilitationsschriftMüntzers Erbe: Werke, Leben und Theologie des Hans Hut. Although at some point a typescript of the work was informally circulated, it took 35 years for the book to be published in Germany. The book was eventually released by Gütersloher Verlagshaus in 2002 to great acclaim. In his review for the Mennonite Quarterly Review, Tom Scott writes that:

“It is astonishing that a scholarly work, whose importance was recognized when it first appeared as a Habilitationsschrift in 1972, should have taken thirty years to find its way into print. Unfortunately, Seebass does not explain the reasons for the delay, nor why it should now at last have been published. It is even more remarkable, as Seebass notes in a brief afterword, that so few of his findings about the life and work of Hans Hut have been revised, let alone overturned, by subsequent scholarship in the intervening years. Both facts testify to the meticulous research and secure command of the theological highways and byways of the Radical Reformation that Seebass displays…” (MQR 77.3 2003)

In late 2021 Pandora Press commissioned an English translation of the book from Amalie Enns, and we are now seeking financial support to pay for translation, copyediting, typesetting, and distribution. If you are interested in supporting the project please contact the press through this form.

A Note of Gratitude

Mennonite Studies, Mennonite Theology, and Anabaptist History are each in a state of flux. Major shifts are occurring for journals like the Mennonite Quarterly Review (as John D. Roth takes on the oversight of MennoMedia’s work on the 500th Anniversary of the start of Anabaptism), and exciting new work is being done by younger scholars in the field – many of whom are featured on this site. In providing the update above I also want to express my gratitude to those who support the work of graduate students and early career scholars in the field, and especially to those who continue to purchase books published by Pandora Press and the other publishers listed above.

With thanks for your past, present, and future support of scholarly publishing in Anabaptist and Mennonite Studies,

Maxwell Kennel
Pandora Press